When the State’s Expert Witness Has a Financial Interest in DUI Convictions

On February 6, 2018, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-10-413(f), which establishes a BADT fee, is unconstitutional as a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and article I, section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution.

What is a BADT fee?

The Tennessee DUI law in question provides that,

In additional to all other fines, fees, costs, and punishments now prescribed by law, . . . a blood alcohol or drug concentration test (BADT) fee in the amount of two hundred fifty dollars ($250) shall be assessed upon a conviction for driving under the influence of an intoxicant under § 55-10-401, vehicular assault under § 39-13-106, aggravated vehicular assault under § 39-13-115, vehicular homicide under § 39-13-213(a)(2), or aggravated vehicular homicide under § 39-13-218, for each offender who has taken a breath alcohol test on an evidential breath testing unit provided, maintained, and administered by a law enforcement agency for the purpose of determining the breath alcohol content or has submitted to a chemical test to determine the alcohol or drug content of the blood or urine. T.C.A. § 55-10-413(f)(2017).[1]

The statute further indicates that the fee shall be collected by the court clerk and deposited in the TBI toxicology unit intoxication testing fund and may be used by the TBI “to employ personnel, purchase equipment and supplies, pay for the education, training and scientific development of employees, or for any other purpose so as to allow the bureau to operate in a more efficient and expeditious manner. T.C.A. § 55-10-413(f)(2) and (3)(2017).

As noted by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, this blood alcohol or drug concentration test (BADT) fee provides the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) with a direct financial interest in securing DUI-related convictions because this fee is not collected if the defendant’s charges are dismissed, reduced, or if the defendant is acquitted.

Due Process Requires Fairness and Impartiality

“When discussing the importance of due process protections, this court has reiterated that ‘[w]e cannot allow public confidence in the complete fairness and impartiality of our tribunals to be eroded and nothing which casts any doubt on the fairness of the proceedings should be tolerated.’” State v. Decosimo, No. E2017-00696-CCA-R3-CD, at *24 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 6, 2018)(citations omitted).

Although they are employed by the state, TBI forensic scientists are expected to remain neutral and unbiased to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. The BADT fee, however, provides these forensic scientists with a pecuniary interest because they may benefit from the collected fee (continued employment, salaries, equipment, and training). The court also noted that although a TBI analyst could lost his job if test results are falsified, the analysts would “most certainly lose their jobs if funding for their positions disappears, a result of which these forensic scientist are no doubt well aware.” Such a fee system calls into question the TBI forensic test results and, therefore, violated due process. State v. Decosimo, No. E2017-00696-CCA-R3-CD, at *27 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 6, 2018)(citations omitted).

Impact of the Unconstitutionality of the BADT Fee

Attorneys across the state of Tennessee are taking a closer look at all DUI cases involving a chemical test sample. Depending on the facts of the case, and the jurisdiction, DUI defendants could benefit from the suppression of the blood or breath test results from evidence. If the evidence of impairment is limited to the chemical test result, attorneys may even find success in arguing motions to dismiss the criminal case against the defendant.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s office has filed an application to the Tennessee Supreme Court for permission to appeal the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeal’s decision. This Rule 11 application highlights the need for an urgent, “expeditious review” given the fact that the Decosimo ruling impacts thousands of past convictions as well as current and future DUI-related prosecutions. Although it is likely that the Tennessee Supreme Court will agree to hear the appeal, it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately uphold the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling that the BADT fee is unconstitutional, or if the court will reverse the decision and find the fee constitutionally permissible.

If you would like further information about Tennessee DUI laws, or your case, you may contact the Oberman and Rice Law Firm at (865) 249-7200.

[1] At the time of the defendant’s arrest in State v. Decosimo, the relevant statute number was T.C.A. § 55-10-419 (2012). Since that time, this code section was transferred to the current location of § 55-10-413 and minor changes have been made by the Tennessee legislature.

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